I contend it is human nature to excel and progress.
The reason is simple - survival. It is hard-wired into people's brains to survive and until the very recent (in terms of human history) advent and expansion of capitalism and free markets, which made things we used to strive for (food, shelter, safety, health) plentiful, human existence was harsh, cruel and short. Because of this unpleasant existence, humans had constant incentive to improve, secure, and progress, and therefore that hard wiring is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
This has pros and cons.
Because of this relentless advancement we have made great strides in science, technology, and medicine. We are without a doubt the most advanced creatures on the planet, and likely the universe. And the problems of our poorest are blessings the richest would kill to have only a short 1,000 years ago.
But the cons come in when this unstoppable force and desire to advance and progress runs into the unnecessary and unneeded barriers society constructs for political purposes to regulate and restrict itself. This then causes great confusion and frustration in people as they try to advance, but society's institutions just won't let them.
Take for example the current labor market.
There is no shortage of labor, let alone educated labor. The urge to constantly progress and advance is so strong people are forcing themselves to jump through insane hoops required by employers, getting MBA's, master's, and any number of credentials to put as many acronyms on their resume. There are no jobs, of course (once again for stupid political reasons society self-forces on itself), so this massive energy of human intention sits unused. But this energy actually doesn't sit unused. Akin to the law of physics, this energy has to go somewhere, and it does.
It pushes the frontiers of business and employment to psychotic and petty levels.
Employers no longer care whether you can do the job (which, when jobs were plentiful was all that mattered). No, because the economy is weak and the human spirit cannot turn off its hard wiring, there is now a surplus of highly-trained labor. This switches the focus from ability to progressively less and less important, and MORE and MORE PETTY qualifications.
Do you play well in the sandbox?
Do you have a facebook account we disagree with?
What kind of shoes are you wearing?
What is your demeanor?
Did you participate in CSR, diversity and other government sanctioned activities whilst in school?
Take the "Personality Profile Test" to see if you're an ENTJ or an ENTP!
And it doesn't stop with the petty and childish questions of HR.
If lucky enough to be employed in today's economy, you will quickly find out your ability to advance is not how well you do your job, but how well you play ball on the progressively petty antics foisted on you by office politics. Did you donate your time to the local Kiwani's club to hand out business cards? Are you getting your MBA (of course without company sponsorship)? Did you smile when you walked into the office today (not joking, had a former boss point out I wasn't smiling). Are you avoiding the use of apostrophes when writing?
All of this pettiness being a testament to the fact that corporate America has ran out of ideas in that it cannot come up with new industries to employ this excess energy and must diffuse it with psychotic and petty games.
Another example is women's studies.
If there was any low-hanging fruit to flesh out in this newly-formed discipline, it's already been picked. Women, one can argue, were oppressed in society in some manner, and a women's studies department was a natural consequence. But in this already-faux field, whatever genuine advances were to be made, were made very early on. Still, this doesn't prevent millions of ill-reared children from declaring it as a major, and thus, once again, with a surplus of human intention and energy the field must "advance" or "evolve."
A perfect example of how this institution accommodates this is the continually increasing sub-divisions of sexuality. The aforementioned link only covers a fraction of the different sexualities that are out there, but one example that came to mind (and I could not find) was a girl's profile on the internet which cited no less than 5 different sexual orientations she had, the phrases of which used to describe these orientations were DEFINITELY academian in nature. Regardless, the fact "women's studies" has evolved to the point it creates whole new sexual orientations, or to catalogue the most obscure of human phenomenons, shows the institution has run its course and offers nothing of further tangible value to society. But with millions of 20 year old girls, with billions of labor hours, intent on majoring in the field, the "field" must occupy them with worthless make-work somehow, and thus the productivity of their efforts become progressively diminished.
And finally, consider government regulation. The US got along just fine before the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Education. Laws were set up and established at the state, local and federal levels, and the country managed to become the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. But all it took was one "seed generation" of professional activists, bureaucrats, and regulators to increase the code and laws to a strangling amount. Was there a call for regulation in the banking industry? Sure. Was there a call for cleaning up rivers that caught ablaze as companies dumped their waste? Sure. But after 50 years these apparatchiks cannot turn it off. It is human nature to constantly advance and evolve. And so bureaucrats, DNR officials, environemtnalists, and activists are always on the hunt for further regulation and further evils to combat, even if there are no evils or calls for their progressively petty (and destructive) regulation.
There are other instances, but you get the idea.
In every aspect of American life, in every corner of our economy, and in every branch of government human effort is not being used to its fullest potential because those institutions have become corrupted to the point they are no longer productive, and thus there is no economic expenditure or use of said effort. And try as you might, and have the greatest intentions you might, and have the CAPACITY to deliver, it will all be in vain, because in the eyes of the overlords that command these institutions the marginal utility you provide is not via something productive and legitimate, but political and petty.
You could stop the housing bubble from crashing, but you didn't kiss enough ass at the last meeting.
You could build a pipeline and bring thousands of jobs to the oil sands, but that would harm the economy.
You could be that much-needed computer networker we need, but you remind the HR ditz of her previous boyfriend.
You could get your degree in 2 years, but then you wouldn't be forced to employ all those liberal arts doctorates with worthless prereqs.
It won't be until we destroy the petty, pathetic, vile and political incentives that put a cap on our human effort will this human effort translate into economic growth, advancement and prosperity. In the mean time, this effort will remain unused and fester, driving most people insane as they
endure another mindless HR interview
fill out unnecessary paper work to get approval from the city
fight another false law suit by the Sierra Club
have to go $250,000 in debt for their MBA, CFA, and doctorate in finance
and jump through other completely fucking pointless hoops society has deemed necessary to foist on itself.
Until that point, I suggest you don't bang your head against the wall. I suggest instead you enjoy the decline! It just doesn't pay to play according to society's rules.